By Lucy Cafiero-Ahl
In Leslie Silko’s novel, Ceremony, there are many symbols that are connected to womanhood and seem to relate back to Ts’eh, the universal feminine principle of Creation. Although Ceremony is a tale about a man, Tayo, it is also a tale about two forces, the feminine life force of the Universe represented by the female figures of Ts’eh, Laura, Grandma, Aunt Thelma, and Corn Woman, as well as the death force of witchery. By using Feminist criticism and Psychoanalytic meaning, I hope to show how females in Native American culture were symbolic and played an important part in shaping Tayo’s life, circumstances, and recovery.
In the novel, Ceremony, Silko writes of the trauma Tayo experiences throughout his life and how he triumphs at the end. By delving into all the feminine forces throughout his life, Silko teaches us about the female powers which influence him. Tayo’s mother, Laura, who fell victim between the Native American and white cultures. Her alcoholism eventually leads to her death. His Auntie has reluctantly taken over the care of Tayo. She believes in her Christian faith rather than her Native American upbringing. His Grandma, the matriarch of the family is wiser than everyone believes and offers Tayo advice from time to time. Te’sh, a symbol of Corn Mother, loves Tayo like he’s never been loved before. She teaches Tayo ritual offerings and the healing power of many plants. She is a key figure in helping kill the witchery in Tayo.
According to Tyson, “In some North American Indian cultures, gender variants played valued roles in the community, such as healers or performers of sacred ritual functions, because gender variance was associated , as it is in many cultures, with sacred power” (pg. 107). Tyson goes on to say “…the ultimate goal of feminist criticism is to increase our understanding of women’s experience, both in the past and present, and promote our appreciation of women’s value in the world” (pg.114).
Before Europeans came to America, Native American women and men had specific tasks that were defined by gender. While the duties were different, the work was equally valued and roles balanced (Waterman, 2013). Men were responsible for hunting, warfare, and interacting with people from other tribes so they had a more public role whereas women managed the internal operations of the community and the household. Women usually owned the family housing, all the household goods, gathered the food, and raised the children (Pearson). In Silko’s novel, Laura, Auntie and Grandma represent the matrilineal inheritance of their clan. According to Buhle, “Mothers shape not only their children’s individual characters, but collectively the personality structure of their entire society” (pg.141). “If a child does not have a sense of belonging it [becomes a weakness]…that weakness the child will have in later years, in times of great need and difficulty” (Anderson). Tayo was not only abandoned by his mother but by Auntie as well due to her attitude towards him. Grandma seems to be one of the strong influences in Tayo’s life as well as in his recovery.
Grandma is a very wise old woman. She has been around for a very long time and has seen the changes in the tribe throughout the years. She is the representation of the old ways, holding a deep respect for traditional spiritual beliefs and practices that were handed down through her own family. After Tayo has a dream about Josiah, he wakes up crying. He is shaking and doesn’t think he is going to make it through. He wants to tell Auntie that they need to take him back to the hospital. Grandma, who has been sitting by the stove with her eyes closed, slowly gets up and shuffles over to where Tayo is lying in bed. She sits on the edge of the bed and holds his head in her lap. She starts crying with him saying “A’moo’ho, a’moo’ohh over and over again” and then she says, “I’ve been thinking all this time, while I was sitting in my chair. Those white doctors haven’t helped you at all. Maybe we had better send for someone else” (Silko, pg. 33).
When Auntie returns home from grocery shopping, Grandma suggests they call the medicine man. Auntie disapproves because she is afraid the gossip will start again and she doesn’t want to deal with it. Grandma insists because she feels Tayo can be helped by going back to the old ways and doesn’t care if people will talk. Grandmothers were considered teachers and their role was to not only protect but also to guide others with respect to their own responsibilities (Anderson). Grandma does this by silencing Auntie when she protests, and the medicine man is called.
Native American cultures have long considered the female figure one of reverence and power. In fact, male-dominated politics in First Nations communities are largely the result of the Indian Act of 1876, which crushed First Nations women’s official involvement in governance. This was done by replacing men and women who participated in the diverse traditional systems with exclusively men as chiefs and councils (Anderson). However, the communities that fell outside of the Indian Act, were more apt to retain the older systems in which women continued to hold power (Anderson).
The medicine man seems to think Tayo needs to relive his memories and to perform a new ceremony to make him well. According to Freud, “when the mind is confronted with an overwhelming experience, it tends to isolate the memories associated with this experience in specific areas of the brain that are inaccessible to conscious recall…” (Sprengnether). This ceremony leads Tayo to Ts’eh, a powerful feminine force that ultimately cures him.
Ts’eh is mysterious and seems to come out of nowhere. She comes into Tayo’s life suddenly and leaves just as fast. She is a representative of Corn Mother, Thought Woman, and Spiderwoman all in one body. They met by happenstance, or goes the story, but clearly, it was part of the ceremony of healing. The first night, as he sat eating chili, Ts’eh tells him the sky is clear and the stars are out. He had been looking for the pattern of stars that Betonie had drew on the ground, and as he looked out up into the sky, the pattern was there. That night, while making love, Tayo began to heal. He was afraid he would get lost again, but that didn’t happen. Tayo found comfort in her.
When he returned to her house, somehow the spotted cattle had come running down the mountain and into her trap. Even his horse showed up at her place. The subliminal message here is she has a magnetic powers, like Mother Earth. Tayo saw this when she told him the cattlemen would not come to retrieve the cattle “she gave him a look that chilled him” (Silko, pg. 213). When he said goodbye, she told him she would be seeing him and then she disappeared.
Tayo saw her in his dreams, held her, caressed her, his love for her was overwhelming. According to Tyson, “recurring dreams or recurring dream images are the most reliable indicators of our unconscious concerns” (pg. 20). Tayo went back to the ranch and when he walked into his room, “the terror of the dreaming he had done on this bed was gone, uprooted from his belly; and the woman had filled the hallow spaces with new dreams” (pg. 219).
When Ts’eh appears again to Tayo, she is wrapped in her blue shawl, the color being sacred and used to honor the gods. She gathers plants, teaches Tayo about the gifts from Mother Earth, she is the sacred feminine. She cares deeply for Tayo, and she gets involved in his life. She sees every opportunity as one of transformation. She is magical, almost like a figment of Tayo’s imagination, a ghost. According to Helene Cixous, “She is more patriarchal and as the source of life, women are themselves the source of power, of energy” (Tyson, pg. 96).
Because Tayo was with a dysfunctional mother until he was four, and then raised by another dysfunctional aunt, he could be suffering momism. Though the meaning of momism is an excessive attachment to one’s mother, the opposite could be true as well. During his ceremony, Ts’eh becomes the most important aspect to his recovery. She shows him the unconditional love of a mother, teaching him many things from sacred plants, to opening up his mind and releasing him from the witchery that consumed his identify.
Silko used many symbols in her book Ceremony to connect to the importance of women in Native American culture. She uses the diversity of the women and shows the importance of each in shaping Tayo’s life, circumstances and eventual recovery from the witchery that overtook his identity, for “women are themselves the source of power…” (Tyson). In the end, “every evil which entangled him was cut to pieces” (Silko, pg.258).
Anderson, Kim. Life Stages and Native Women: Memory, Teachings and Story Medicine. Winnipeg. University of Manitoba Press. 2011. Print.
Buhle, Mari Jo. Feminism and its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis. Cambridge, Harvard University Press. 1998, Print.
Pearson, Ellen Holmes. “American Indian Women”. National History Education Clearinghouse. Teachinghistory.org. Website. http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/23931 2013.
Silko, Leslie. Ceremony. New York: Penguin Books, 1977
Sprengnether, Madelon. “Feminist Criticism and Psychoanalysis.” A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Eds. Gill Plain and Susan Sellers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Credo Reference. Web. 16 Oct 2015.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. “Feminist criticism”. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015
Waterman, Stephanie and Lorinda Lindley. Cultural Strengths to Persevere: Native American Women in Higher Education. Naspa. 2013. Shapiro Library. 6 Nov. 2015.